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The Shock of Knowing

A review of A Language Older than Words by Derrick Jensen, 
Context Books, New York, 2000.

Derrick Jensen’s third book is a transcendent memoir of personal pain and a testament to the universal agony of the human family, a species caught in a destructive mesh that threatens to engulf the full spectrum of life-forms on the planet.

A bioregional activist and proponent of deep ecology, Jensen describes the endgame of our species with the steady, clear-eyed conviction of an individual who has survived horrific abuse in childhood. Those who have already been concerned that the human species has taken a wrong turn may find nothing radically new in this book, but they will find a good many familiar and troubling insights stated in a new way, in a raw, vivid and inescapably alarming style. Like the seething arc of an emergency flare, Jensen’s writing draws our attention to its own unique trajectory, its moral signature, at the same time that it throws into high relief the rutted, body-strewn terrain below, the desolated world where we, each one of us, must take a stand.

A Language Older than Words presents a trenchant view on how life looks from the front lines of the millennial war the human species is waging against the natural world and against itself as a participant in that world. Whatever we thought we knew about this auto de fe, the massive spectacle of self-annihilation in which we are all plunged, victims and perpetrators alike, we will probably regard with heightened concern after reading Jensen’s arc-welded prose. Through a visceral style, unadorned honesty and total lack of apologies, he vividly underscores the terrible journey we’ve entered and heightens the suspense about what’s ahead, just around the bend. More than adding to what we know, he changes the way we know it. To come through his book alive and alert is to be staggered into a new moral stance by the shock of knowing.

Beyond Redemption

Jensen’s method is not consistent analysis, proceeding systematically through the issues of the day, but rather a series of sporadic raids, forays into different aspects of the problem. Read the twenty-eight chapters of the book in any order you like, their effect is cumulative rather than consecutive. In the first chapter, “Silencing” Jensen frankly relates his father’s brutal rapes and beatings of all the family members, himself included. Throughout the rest of the book the theme of abuse resonates from the microcosm of a single family out to the entire human family and back again, for Jensen views the atrocities committed by human beings on other human beings without distinction in scale. All this evil shares a single origin in the insane behavior of our civilization, although the origin of this insanity remains a mystery. Even if he does not know what is to be done, he insists that something must be done to confront the insanity -- and possibly to resist those who deliberately and perversely enact it. Jensen avows what to him is “the central question of our time: what are the sane and appropriate responses to insanely destructive behavior?” (188)

Here, as elsewhere in his writings, Jensen offers cogent insights on the machinations of the System, the vast tentacular military-industrial-commercial complex that sustains Western civilization. His expose of the pathology peculiar to humanity is exceptionally vivid, and his appeal to recognize that the world we’ve made is in a most dangerous situation resonates boldly in page after page. By taking the entire argument against the System to a new level of elucidation, Jensen challenges us to discover a new edge and enter a deepened commitment in our efforts to resist and disempower the ways of life that engender violence and destruction.

In large measure, Jensen’s message draws its intensity from a single urgent insight: the System is going down due to its innate self-destructiveness (for instance, the “pyramid scheme” of limitless growth must collapse). Granted this is so, we must ask: What is to be done, beside passively standing by and watching it happen? Will the endgame require forceful confrontation with those who perpetuate the System, if only to rescue the last enduring rudiments of our common humanity from extinction? In an interview published in the Utne Reader (July, 2002), Jensen says flatly

Our culture will not undergo any sort of voluntary transformation to a sane and sustainable way of living... If the problems are based on mass psychoses, rational solutions will be of no avail... When someone is abusing someone else, the abuser needs to be stopped. Which brings us to the question of how do you redirect the flow of an entire culture. I don”t believe you do. The dominant culture is irredeemable.

What then is the most positive, morally inspiring way to respond to the world imposed by the System? In A Language Older than Words Jensen asserts that our connection with the web of life is far deeper, older and stronger than our enmeshment in so-called civilization. Redemption of the System may not be possible, but atonement with Nature surely is. In beautiful passages that celebrate the interspecies link, Jensen describes his contact and communication with the land and non-human species, animals both wild and domesticated. While he does not pretend that such communion can change the world-situation, he insists that atonement with the natural world is essential to individual and social sanity.

And without sanity, how can we face insanity?

Just to bear to live with the daily spectacle of abuse, lies and extortion — the infernal trinity of the System — calls for strength that only comes from reclaiming our bodies and grounding ourselves in the natural world.

The Future of Rage

Ghandi wrote a letter to Hitler asking him to stop committing atrocities, and was mystified that it didn’t work. (188)

The proposition that the human species has become dangerously alienated from the natural world is quite familiar and at moments risks becoming esome. Perhaps the most engaging aspect of A Language Older than Words is the style Jensen uses to restate and re-enliven this proposition. In a word, his style is visceral. No doubt the style is a choice, for Jensen is an author exceptionally gifted in his mastery of language, but it is also somatically grounded. He suffers from Crohn’s disease, a degenerative condition of the intestines. The condition entails periodic crises when he collapses, overcome by a sense of implosion in his guts, and “a grainy pulling at my bowels, the feeling of rough-hewn lumber sliding under fingertips (310).” His writing makes it clear that the physical affliction he suffers is inseparable from the moral vision into which he transmutes it:

To perceive the world as we perceive our dreams would be to more closely perceive it as it is. The sky is crying, from joy or grief I do not know. Waves in a wild river form bowbacked lovers and speak to me of union. Industrial civilization tears apart my insides. (312)

On page after page, A Language Older than Words resonates with a clarion call to recover the mysterious dream of life and depart from the nightmare we, the human species, have made of living. His authorial position between these two dimensions of human reality is precarious and poignant, and the gift of his voice is to make us aware that we also are caught in the balance.

He says, “the nightmare cannot be defeated on its own terms (217),” but he speculates openly about taking out someone like the head of a major lumber company, Weyerhauser, or some other CEO easily identifiable as an agent of corporate greed and global aggression. Then he qualifies the option: “I’m not suggesting, by the way, that a few well-aimed assassinations would solve our problems (220).” The problem is that, unlike Jensen’s father, “whose removal would have stopped the horrors” he was perpetrating on the family, the agents of global desecration are part of the System, a vast network that extends beyond them as individuals, and they are all interchangeable within that network. To kill the identifiable perpetrators like Slade Gorton and Larry Craig, “two Senators from the Northwest whose work may charitably be described as genocidal and ecocidal,” would not slow the destruction, for “the genocidal and ecocidal programs originating specifically from the damaged psyches of Gorton and Craig would die with them, but the shared nature of the destructive impulse would continue, making their replacement as easy as buying a new hoe (220).”

To my knowledge only one other author has dared to broach the issue of using violent or murderous force against perpetration in so brash and unapologetic a way. Wendell Berry, whose voice complements Jensen’s and, in some respects, outreaches beyond it, has declared: “If someone raped or murdered a member of my family, would I not want to kill him? Of course I would, and I daresay I would enjoy killing him. Or her. If asked, however, if I think that it would do any good, I must reply that I do not.” 1 Both Berry and Jensen weigh the possible merits of such an option in the specific, personal case versus the Systemic, corporate case. Jensen observes that in the personal context, the abuse would end because the specific abuser would be terminated. Berry, on the other hand, does not accept that terminating a single perpetrator will do any good. His view is more aligned to traditional Christian morals, whereas Jensen represents the heroic ethic that allows for the use of violent force to resist aggression and defend the weak and innocent.

Those who might read in Jensen anything like an appeal to violence as a morally legitimate response to the identified agents of perpetration are reading him badly, for his activism does not operate along these lines; yet it does not absolutely preclude that option, either. He leaves open the daunting question of how the use of violent force might be required, in some situations, to protect and preserve life. Clearly, writing letters to Hitler will not do the trick. What is the difference between the violence endemic to the System and the violent force that might be required to resist and defeat those who perpetuate the System? No one knows, but thanks to Jensen a lot of people are now going to be thinking about it.

A Language Older than Words delineates new horizons for the future of rage.

And rage, so it happens, is also an heroic attribute. In my book on the myth of the hero, I traced the multi-cultural indications that the hero (or heroine) is someone who carries the exceptional responsibility to direct rage to moral ends. The force of rage — variously called furor, wut, lust, kudos, ferg, fury — rises from a surplus in the biological makeup of the human species. It represents life-force in excess of what is needed merely to live. “Rage is the male complement to nurture, and equally essential to the survival of the species.” 2 Derrick Jensen embodies rage and expresses it with a poignancy unparalleled in modern alternative political writing. Like a true warrior, his vulnerability (literally, the ability to be wounded) is the source of his strength. Indict the insanity of the modern Western way of life — this he does, indeed. But beyond the indictment, he seems to be preparing something, to be engendering a heightened sense of participation for a response that we have not yet been able to envision. This acute sense of anticipation is what adds such a shock-value to the power of knowing what we already know.

How will the anticipation Jensen generates play out in his future writing and in the wider scope of public response it may receive? This is anyone’s guess. Of his father, Jensen says that his mother wishes the man were dead, but “my own wish for him would be that he live in the full understanding of the damage he has caused (51).” Here again he brings us to the edge between the personal and the Systemic manifestations of perpetration. One man or woman may come to realize the evil they do, but it is pretty clear by now that a great many of those who perpetrate within the System, by acting as agents of the System, will never come to admit the damage they are causing. What Jensen wishes for his father might also be wished of Senators Gorton and Craig, or George Bush or Saddam Hussein... but who would wait around for them to come around?

The trick is, whether or not those who play a more executive role in perpetration ever come to admit their actions, we are all in the System together, victims and perpetrators are enmeshed. With a twist on Sartre’s famous one-liner, “Hell is other people,” Jensen writes: “Hell is the too-late realization that everything and everyone are interdependent. This realization is our only salvation (51).” On this note he entitles the last chapter of his book, “Connection and Cooperation.” For the epigram he quotes Native American activist, Vine Deloria, Jr.: “The future of humankind lies waiting for those who will come to understand their lives and take up their responsibility to all living things.”

JLL. Sept 2002

1  “Peaceableness Toward Enemies,” in Sex, Economy, Freedom and Community, p. 86.

2  Lash, The Hero, p. 8.



Material by John Lash and Lydia Dzumardjin: Copyright 2002 - 2018 by John L. Lash.